“The Earth asks more of us than gratitude.”
–Robin Wall Kimmerer*
A few years ago, I was in a workshop for social and environmental activists at a beautiful retreat center in the northwest New Mexico desert. At one point the leaders instructed us all to go outdoors and speak our pain and frustration into the land.
A workshop attendee draped in beads and scarves spoke up. “Yes,” she knowingly proclaimed, “Mother Earth can take our garbage. So let’s give it all to her and let her turn it into compost.”
As one of the few locals in the workshop, I was consumed by a burst of rage. “No!” I shouted. “The land here has been suffering from human actions for 500 years already! First the Spanish settlers with their sheep; then the Anglo cattle ranchers, along with loggers and miners; and now the frackers and developers. And we think we can give the Earth yet more of our toxins, and, not only that, proclaim that that’s actually good for Her?!”
A silence fell. The workshop leaders tiptoed over to help me with having been “triggered,” and the participants gave me a wide berth as they went out to follow the instructions. I finally went out too, not to unload my garbage but to pray for the land, and hope that the Nature beings could hear me in the midst of all the others shouting and cursing and spewing yet more trash into the desert.
So when I saw the above quote from Robin, it really struck a chord. Of course the Earth benefits from our gratitude—and, sadly, that’s even rare enough. But what else does Mother Gaia need from us? Here is a quick list to begin:
The Earth needs our sense of belonging, to the land and with the land. This frees us from the widespread, damaging illusion of human-centeredness, the entitled idea that human well-being is the most important thing on our planet.
The Earth needs our honoring of all the beings that are part of Her—including the immaterial beings and deities who inhabit the Otherworlds that are intertwined with the physical world. As long as we fear or ignore this level of reality, we are separating ourselves from important alliances that can benefit the Sacred Land and ourselves.
The Earth needs our humble acknowledgement that the complexities of Nature are well beyond anything humans can figure out with our minds. This helps us to examine proposed technological fixes to the biosphere, whether local or global, in order to ascertain if these “solutions” are really attuned with the wholeness of the natural world, and will benefit future generations of both humans and non-humans.
The Earth needs our awareness of and commitment to Her highest, deepest force—the force of regeneration, of rebirth. Life is not linear—it always involves returns. To fully appreciate and understand this, we need to free ourselves from the linear, hierarchical thinking of the human-created world and surrender to the fluid, creative wisdom of the circle and the spiral.
Overall, then, the Earth needs us to be and do something different! Whether we begin to go out on the land and leave offerings for the Nature spirits; or remove our lawn and plant flowers for pollinators; or volunteer with local groups that care for our watershed or work with injured raptors; or lobby the legislature to enact better laws about clean air, or to limit noise or light pollution (which negatively affect many beings besides ourselves), we need to become different people, with different priorities, living different lives.
Gratitude by itself is important, irreplaceable even. But it’s more than a transitory, self-referenced emotion. It’s the ground for the essential transformations needed within us, and within the modern culture’s beliefs and institutions. It’s the stepping stone that can lead us into becoming useful, aware, reverent, good-willed members of Gaia’s entire community, human and non-human, material and spiritual, past, present and future.
And, while we’re at it, let’s use courtesy and discernment when we feel like speaking any toxic emotions into the land. Maybe there’s a better way to serve both ourselves and our precious Earth.
*The Turtle Mothers Have Come Ashore to Ask About an Unpaid Debt; New York Times, Sept. 22, 2023.